Cultural (suburban) captivity of the church

Tim Foster, vice-principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, has written a book, The Suburban Captivity
of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for
Post-Christian Australia (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014). (The price of the Kindle version is AUD$6.64 today.) Tim Foster studied at Moore College, Sydney, Australia, and did his DMin at Fuller Seminary, US.

I am very interested in this book, but haven’t got the time to read it yet. But I am delighted to read a number of reviews on this book. I will highlight a few things from those reviews and then offer some reflections. Please note that I haven’t read the book myself, and hence the following is not a review of the book as such. Rather, it is a reflection on my observations on the Australian church and the implications to mission in the non-Western world.

Here are the authors of the reviews. Click on his/her name to read his/her review.

Philip Hughes

Tess Holgate

David Burke

Simon Holt

According to Tess Holgate, Foster moved from a suburban parish to an urban one, and there his understanding of the gospel was challenged. Not surprisingly, then, in his book Foster provides the profiles of suburbanites, urbanities, and battlers. I haven’t got the book myself, but I find the following diagram from Philip Hughes’ review helpful. Note that the information in the diagram is from Hughes’ review, not directly from Foster’s book.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 5.47.58 pm

Here is Hughes’ summary of Foster’s understanding of suburban values and how evangelical Christians in Australia may fit into that.

The suburban vision, says Foster, is ‘the pursuit of a comfortable, secure and settled life, in an ordered domain, with one’s family and closest friends, where each individual is free to pursue those interests that will bring happiness with minimal disruption’ (p.75). However, he notes that consumption is conspicuous and functions as a sign of upward mobility in the suburbs. Competition is also inherent in the suburban ethos, not only in consumption, but in spectator sports, cooking and parties, and even giving one’s children private education (p.76). The evangelical churches are strongest in the suburban areas as the values they espouse may be closest to suburban culture in terms of their emphasis on family life. Yet, God often has little place in the suburban vision, Foster says, except to bless the aspirations and assist in their fulfilment (p.77). People sometimes turn to God when things go off the rails.

I haven’t read the book myself. But whether Hughes’ summary reflects accurately Foster’s book, I think the above observation of suburban life is not surprising.

The following from Hughes’ review is also noteworthy. It won’t be new to anyone who has spent some time in an urban church.

Foster notes that, in Australian cities, the working class has diminished as the middle class has grown. Some of the other groups who are at the bottom of the socio-economic range, such as refugees and some non-Western immigrants, some people with disability and mental illness and some on long-term social benefits, share some characteristics of the battlers, but each of these sub-groups is distinct in their own ways (p.116).

In the following I want to offer my own reflections.

(1) Let us not allow the suburban culture to shape our lives. In the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do not find Jesus or the Jesus-followers living an upwardly mobile life. Middle-class prosperity and aspiration were not the focus of their lives. Rather, the disciples were called to follow Jesus, take up the cross, and embody his life, suffering, death and resurrection in their everyday life. Our value system should be shaped by the cross, not by the values of suburbanites or urbanites, or any other belief or ideology. (It doesn’t mean that we should feel guilty if we were born into a middle-class family, or if we happen to have a high income. What matters is that we live a cross-shaped life.)

(2) We should read the Bible carefully. Anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully would find that individualism, consumerism, and materialism are incompatible with the values of God’s kingdom. We must learn to critique our culture with the Bible.

(3) Let us make the move. It is interesting that Tim Foster’s view of the gospel was challenged when he moved from a suburban parish to an urban one. I am not proposing that we should all move to an inner-city church. But it helps to spend time with people there, so that we can give ourselves the opportunity to discern whether we have unwittingly allowed a suburban mindset to shape our lives. It is important to spend time with the urban poor, the marginalized, the asylum seekers and refugees, and allow their lives to speak to us. There are Christian communities and churches that can assist us to do that. They are not hard to find.

(4) Make sure that we do not export a distorted gospel to the rest of the world. It seems to me that a “gospel message” that is held captive to our culture of materialism and individualism (“me” as the centre, not Christ) is incompatible with the gospel in the Bible. A “gospel message” held captive to the pursuit of upward mobility is not based on the Scripture. A suburban lifestyle that keeps us from the plight of the poor and marginalised is deceptive. It actually keeps us from seeing the Jesus in the Gospels, who identified with the suffering of humankind, not least the pain and affliction of the poor and oppressed. My concern is that western Christians spread a distorted gospel to people in other parts of the world. (I am worried that this may have already happened!)

The best way to avoid this is for western Christians to spend time with the poor and needy in their home country. It is a great preparation for anyone in the West who wants to serve God overseas. This is particularly the case if they spend time in an urban church. Inner-city churches—if and when they are truly missional—are often multicultural, with not a few people coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. What a great training for those who feel that God may have called them to overseas cross-cultural mission!

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